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Product Review: Skype VoIP client

A test of the popularity of a buzz word or an acronym is when your parents start using it. Usually, they pronounce the thing wrong and you have a little giggle and no harm done. Enter then, VoIP, or Voice over IP, which in itself is a compound acronym, where IP means Internet Protocol.

But this is merely an aside and probably not all that important, or at least it shouldn’t be.

You see, this review is maybe as much about the underlying technology as the software itself.

For the tech’ savvy, a good, snappy acronym adds a certain gravitas to the thing in question. Especially amongst a social circle of similarly-minded tech’ people.

Meanwhile, the decision makers sigh and roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders in unison as they .. yet one more time, trudge down to the local IT department; IT being yet another detested acronym, to get set straight on the subject of said new acronym.

Chief financial officer waves his / her hand in the air and shakes his / her head: “Look, I’m not going to understand it, just tell me what it’s going to cost and what it’s going bring in return.”

IT officer: “You mean the ROI?”

Chief financial officer: “What?!”, he / she exclaims.

IT officer: “Return on investment, duh!”, he derides as he spins round on his seat, slings out a wandering finger and presses the return key on his keyboard to confirm the download of the latest piece of software with the latest acronym name.

So there are doors opened and doors closed.

It’s an odd world.

In this world, VoIP is no exception, although the battle has been a well fought one by both sides.

On the one hand you have the telecommunication behemoths who wish to protect their market share, while on the other hand, you have the customers who want a lower phone bill.

Enter then, VoIP.

For me, VoIP is still a sleeper technology. A technology with truly unique ability to disrupt business models and affect social change.

But then, if this is the case, why is there so much resistance?

Simple. Because too many people are too busy trying to make sense of too many disruptive technologies to be worried about one more.

There are two kinds of disruptive technologies. There is the one that just disrupts, and this is usually a poorly-implemented software roll-out across an organization, for example.

Then there’s the technology that disrupts existing business models and forces a re-think by many of the major players who stand, stricken in horror as their market is torn apart by much smaller but incredibly agile competitors.

Look at what happened with music downloads. Social change was making use of technology to unseat business models.

The music industry was utterly unprepared and largely apoplectic. They had no idea how to respond in any other way than to go all litigious on everyone.

In fact, such was their raging arrogance, they believed that their collective market hegemony with the weight of various political players and undoubted legal nounce would win the day.

Err .. no!

Little did they know that had they embraced this new technology sooner, they would have been at the leading edge of social change — possibly the most significant place to be.

Bizarrely, BT; which is an acronym of British Telecommunications by the way, have embraced VoIP fully.

I say bizarrely because to the casual observer, for such a massive company to go and ‘give in’ to a technology capable of unseating their many various business models may seem reckless.

Not to.

By embracing the technology now, they put themselves ahead of the curve, ahead of the little guy and more importantly, ahead of their major competitors, and stand to be amongst the few who will inevitably move the standard forward.

So this meandering segue brings us circuitously to Skype.


As a business owner, I need to to keep costs down. There are two kinds of costs; fixed and variable. In the case of the fixed costs, you have little or no control over them. However, variable costs can be more malleable.

Having identified telecommunications as potential candidate for cost savings, I needed to figure out a way to keep my phone bill down.

By making good use of VoIP, I intend to work with the more technically literate of my clients, partners and suppliers and get them to use VoIP, ideally by way of the Skype VoIP client.

With that said, I’ve been continually bugging a client and a fellow business owner / adviser to get Skype and get a microphone and / or headset to accompany the software.

After continued and remorseless nagging, one of them finally broke and for half an hour yesterday, we kicked the tyres of Skype to see if the reviews were true.

Installation & Setup

I can only speak as Mac user, and as a mac user, the installation just happened. You don’t really give much thought to installing software because there are rarely any issues.

Sparing you the many reasons why this is, for the purposes of the wider audience, it may better suffice to say that Brian had no problems installing Skype on his Microsoft Windows PC.

Interestingly, there’s a Linux Skype client, so the potential for company communications across various locations and departmental infrastructures is very much possible.

Consider the following scenario: the head of marketing needs a quick production meeting. He needs to speak with Steve in Design, Andy in IT and Sarah in Sales.

With the likes of Steve running Mac desktops, Andy running mixed Windows or Linux desktops & laptops and Sarah running Windows on her PC laptop, you have the potential recipe for being well & truly incommunicado.

Fear not! Skype runs on all three platforms, although I have no knowledge of installation & setup on Linux. But if the other two platforms are anything to go by, then I do not anticipate many problems.

Setting up Skype is simply a case of running the software, choosing the option to create a new account and then going through various windows that appear. No great shakes. After that, you run the software and let the thing log you in automatically.

Usage

So with my mate Brian on Windows and me on OS X we began to talk.

At the time, I was running iTunes and I was listening to some internet radio station. The station in question was broadcasting at 128 kilobits per second. So with that in the background, there was already activity on the my broadband connection.

There is also a instant messaging chat client built into Skype, in addition to a file transfer tool. So, we decided to send a file to each other while talking and text chatting simultaneously.


An extra mark for the file transfers working in both directions at the same time. I was sending a file to Brian and he was sending one to me. Obviously, once one of the transfers had completed, the other sped up noticeably. But the point here is, non of this activity over burdened our voice connection.

I’m happy to report that there was non of the obligatory popping, screeching and sagging in the audio that usually accompanies an audio feed over the internet.

A very worthy option is the ability to conference among more than two Skype users. This very much adds another dimension to the scenario I discussed earlier where Steve, Andy and Sarah get to talk to the marketing director.

User Interface

One thing that does disappoint slightly is the inconsistent look & feel of Skype across platforms. But in fairness, this isn’t something that I feel the developers had too much control over.

Each platform has subtle differences in how various screen assets are presented. With this in mind, this is reflected in the user interface of Skype on each platform.

But I’m sure if you’re going from a Mac to a Windows PC, the transition will be much more jarring given the general untidiness of the interface of Skype on Windows, while the Windows PC user may find Skype on the Mac much more uncluttered and simpler to fathom at a glance.

Nice touches abound, and by aligning the chat client with the the look & feel of MSN Messenger, Skype quickly allays the fears of those more familiar with the aforementioned chat client.

But if you’re looking for smilies in the actual chat screen, then you’re out of luck! Although I’m pretty sure this is on the list of things to do for the developers of Skype, once they add in the meat & potatoes of the software.

By default, instant messages are kept in history, but there’s an option to turn this off. In saving your chat sessions, your various conversations are kept in the HTML format.

This seems a refreshing way of storing such information, but if I must criticize, then there are two issues; firstly, while sending a link to someone in a message is resolved to a clickable link, this does not transpose to the stored history file.

Secondly, for maximum accessibility, the history files would benefit greatly from being XHTML. From there on in, the possibilities would be near limitless. With the right tools, incorporating your chat history into your workflow would be very much a possibility.

Additional Services

The basic ability to chat, talk and send files via Skype is for now free. Whether this will change over time is debatable.

However, for now the people at Skype may well have mitigated the cost of this freeloading by including several additional paid-for services.

One in particular is a voice mail messaging service called predictably enough, Skype Voicemail.

If you’re in need of calling someone on a landline, then you’re in luck because SkypeOut lets you do just that. To access this feature, you must pay for credits. But it’s worth noting that calls to a landline from Skype can be the basis of some interesting cost savings, especially with regards to international calls.

If you’re thinking of dumping your own landline all together and taking calls via Skype, then you’ll need SkypeIn, which is in beta stage. This service allots you a fixed number that people dial in to call you.

Then there’s the obligatory accessories that inevitably accompany these things, most of which can be bought on the high street.

Conclusion

I suppose it’s always easy to be critical, but it’s worth noting that the current version of Skype is 1.0.0.18 so clearly, there’s much to be said of what has been achieved so far.


If you’re looking for a stable, reliable and relatively feature-rich VoIP client, there’s much to recommend Skype…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

3 replies on “Product Review: Skype VoIP client”

Although I have no knowledge of installation & setup on Linux. But if the other two platforms are anything to go by, then I do not anticipate many problems.

It’s just as easy to install and use on Linux. Which makes a refreshing change. I will mention that I use a Debian based distro, so I don’t ever really have problems, but I know people who’ve installed Skype on a lot of distros and not had a problem.

I’d also like to say, this is a brilliant piece of software and I really hope it stays free in the long run, and that they aren’t just giving it away for free while they finish it.

“I’d also like to say, this is a brilliant piece of software and I really hope it stays free in the long run, and that they aren’t just giving it away for free while they finish it.”

Typically speaking, the free gloves come off after version 1. As you can see from the screen shot, we’re already there.

Ideally, free for ever would be pretty good…

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